Learning a Language as an Adult
Learning a Language as an Adult has been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube channel. You can download the audio and study the transcript as a lesson at LingQ.
Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. One of the people who follows my blog whose name is Stefan has asked me to do a video about language learning and age. Now, first of all, let me say that this morning I played Old Timer’s Hockey. Most of the guys are 65, 68, 70, some are in their early 60s and, I tell you, when I’m out there playing hockey I think I’m 10, 15. It’s the same feeling, except that after a game we’re out to go and have a beer so I must have been over the legal drinking age. We’re having just as much fun, the same kind of conversation. We’re trying just as hard in the game fighting for the puck, trying to make passes, set people up, this kind of thing. We’re probably less inclined to get into shoving matches and that kind of stuff, little bit less aggressive. So when I’m out there I think I’m 15 or 20.
I hate it when I go somewhere and people ask me if I want the seniors’ discount because I thought I was maybe a lot younger than that. How do you know that I’m 66? Wow! To me, age is largely in your mind. If you want to learn a language I don’t think age has much to do with it. From the research and so forth, it appears that very young children are able to learn very quickly. My understanding of it is that the brain has not yet sort of crystallized, that the brain is kind of this Darwinian space where different things are competing for room and so if you have a lot of exposure to language (A) that will tend to become dominant. If you have a lot of exposure to several languages you may be more flexible.
I think children under the age of 10 or 12 are less inhibited. They’re into communicating, they’re not worrying about how they sound, this kind of thing, so they tend to do better. Adults can often learn more quickly than children, to the extent that adults have a much larger vocabulary in their own language, therefore, they have more reference points. I’m sure seniors of my age that their memory and some of their neuro skills have declined, just like their body is not as strong, but I don’t have the impression, personally, that it impacts on my ability to learn languages. I don’t think language learning is so much a matter of memory, as I’ve said before. Although memory certainly plays a part, I think it’s more a matter of noticing.
If I’m listening to Czech, I have to notice how it’s pronounced. I have to notice where the emphasis is in a word. I have to notice certain structures. I try to make them natural. I try to remember certain things, but I can’t remember what I can’t notice and so I think noticing is the big thing. I think noticing depends on a number of factors. It depends on our state of mind. Are we interested? Do we think we can do it? Are we alert? Are we keen? We’re more likely to notice if we are.
I’m an experienced language learner, so I will notice certain things. If there are certain things in Czech that are similar to Russian, I will notice them. I notice, for example, the similarity in all European languages in terms of the structure of the verbs. These are things that I notice because I have learned so many languages. I think you notice if you exposure yourself to a lot of the language through repetitive listening and, eventually, not so repetitive and reading. More and more things become clearer so that you’re able to notice these other things that you can’t notice at first.
I don’t think any of these things relate so much to age. Now, I’m not a good example because I’m an experienced language learner. I’ve learned a lot of languages, but I feel that I’m a better language learner today than I was when I was in high school. I wasn’t very interested in high school and I had not had the experience of converting myself into a relatively fluent speaker of another language, so I didn’t have the confidence, I didn’t know how to go about it.
I haven’t noticed that at my age I forget things more quickly. My Czech I’ve been at for six months and I’m still pinching myself. I won’t look for it now, but I had my conversation with Yarda and he sent me his comments at the bottom. There are 10 lines of comment and there wasn’t a single word there that I didn’t know. Now, obviously, when I import text about Czech history or the story of the life of Bedřich Smetana then there are more words that I don’t know, but I can still pick my way through those things. I’ve been at it now six months, an hour and a half a day kind of thing and I don’t notice that I’m slowing down.
So if we look at the different stages, the infant for sure is going to learn to pronounce like a native because there is nothing else interfering with that. Even as younger children under the age of 10-12, they’ll just communicate naturally without any inhibitions, without feeling self-conscious. To that extent they will more naturally learn the language, but once you pass the age of 12-15 I haven’t noticed any difference. I guess, if I remember, when I was at language school studying Chinese, which was the only time I actually went to a language school, there you had people sent their by their employer or by the government to learn a language and the assumption always was that the older guy would have more trouble.
In those days I was 22, so to me a 45-year-old was an old guy and they did have more trouble. To me, today, a 45-year-old is a young guy and I can’t see why they would have trouble. I look at my son Mark, who has become somewhat belatedly interested in languages, he wasn’t that interested when I was trying to force him to learn French as child, but he learned very well. I would have thought him old when I was studying Chinese. I think a lot of the people who are past 20 think they’re not going to be able to do it. They are inhibited, easily embarrassed. They don’t focus on noticing the language because they’re too much concerned about themselves and worrying about themselves. Can I do it, how do I sound.
I think if you approach language learning as some kind of a memory task where you’re going to have to remember a bunch of rules and a bunch of vocabulary, you can quickly persuade yourself that you can’t do it. If you approach language learning as something that you’re going to basically immerse yourself in through a lot of listening and reading or if you’re lucky enough to live in the country where the language is spoken you can get exposure. If you feel that you’re just going to be able to learn it, you take the initiative of regularly consulting a grammar book.
Here again, you talk about noticing. When I start noticing certain structures and I wonder why, then I’m quite keen to go to the grammar book and look it up and see some of the rules and the patterns. There it has a chance of sticking, whereas if it’s kind of forced on me according to some curriculum, today we’re going to study the subjunctive and I say I don’t even know what the subjunctive is, I haven’t even noticed it yet, then it’s not going to stick. But, if I start noticing it and why does the verb change there, then I’m ripe and ready to learn that.
To me, the big thing is believing in yourself, liking the task, liking what you’re doing and enjoying it. Does it matter if as an older person you learn less quickly than as a younger person? I’m not sure you do, but even if you do does it matter to us, a bunch of 60-plus people out there playing hockey having just a tremendous time? Does it matter, in fact, that we are much slower than we think we are, slower than we used to be? Maybe we were never that fast in the first place. I don’t think it matters.
The quick answer is I am not convinced that age is a big deal beyond childhood. If it is, it’s a relatively minor issue. What is much more important is your attitude. Are you focused? Are you paying attention? Are you exposing yourself to enough of the language? Are you enjoying the language? Are you enjoying the process? If the answer to all of that is yes, then the question of your age really doesn’t matter.
Thank you for listening and I look forward to your comments.
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